While the Minnesota Senate race has generated a fair amount of visibility, Senate races overall have been mostly ignored across the nation as the presidential contest has sucked up nearly all of the oxygen in the room. That’s too bad, because there’s an interesting macro story there as well as a number of fascinating local races worth watching. As you settle in for a long evening of election viewing next Tuesday, here’s a quick snapshot of what to look for in these races and an overall story that will unfold all across the nation and may make it worth waiting up to see what happens in far-flung Alaska.
The Big Picture: The Democrats currently have a 51-49 advantage in the Senate. That majority is about as thin as possible because it is achieved through the support of Joe Lieberman, Independent (and McCain supporter) of Connecticut, and Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont.
Being in the majority in any legislative body is a big deal because that you get to organize the body to your advantage. That means your party gets a majority on each committee, your party members chair each committee, you hire the largest portion of the staff, sets the calendar, allocates office space and controls a certain amount of patronage appointments. All things being equal, it’s better to be in the majority.
The Senate, though, is by design and precedent a very individualistic body. Unlike the House of Representatives, which can be effectively governed day-to-day by simple majority, the Senate’s ability to conduct business is very much at the mercy of even a single Senator. In fact, the Senate operates pretty much continuously under what’s called “unanimous consent” which means all of the Senators agree to suspend the chamber’s rules in order to get something done. Paul Wellstone’s early years were marked by his aggressive use – some would call it “abuse” – of this fact.
That means, effectively, that all any Senator needs to do to bring something to a screeching halt is to object to a routine unanimous consent like a request to suspend reading of the previous day’s journal. In fact, a proven path to power in the Senate is through mastering its arcane rules so that wrenches can be inserted into the machinery as necessary. Watching an expert like Robert Byrd of West Virginia work the Senate rules is a pleasure to behold for those of us who appreciate the elegance of leverage in politics.
The most famous of these weird rules is the filibuster which basically gives each Senator the right to speak on a piece of legislation for as long as he or she wants. This tactic was popularized by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington but much of its use has been for less noble purposes, including in modern times opposing much of the civil rights legislation brought forward in 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the record for solo filibustering is still held by South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. A motivated group of Senators can tie up the Senate indefinitely.
The Senate does possess a mechanism for ending a filibuster – a vote of “cloture” that puts a time limit on further debate, but it requires a vote of 60 Senators to pass (up until 1975 it required 67 votes). In these partisan times, cloture votes almost always fall along party lines, making the tool effective only when the majority party has a 60-40 or better advantage.
Needless to say, such a large split doesn’t happen very often. In fact, you have to go back 30 years to find one.
This year, however, the Democrats have a realistic chance of crossing the 60 threshold. Should they achieve this goal it will become much, much easier for a Democratic president, House and Senate to push through any proposals. As a general rule, I’m skeptical of giving this much power to any party, but nobody asked my permission.
To understand why the Dems have such an opportunity, it’s necessary to look at how the 35 Senate seats standing for election this year break down. First thing of note: Of those seats, 23 are currently held by Republicans and 12 are held by Democrats. This is, of course, an instant advantage.
Second, of the Republican seats in play, five are “open” because of retirement – Colorado (Wayne Allard), Idaho (Larry “Wide Stance” Craig), Nebraska (Chuck Hagel), New Mexico (Pete Domenici) and Virginia (John Warner). Even in a year like this, incumbency is a strong advantage and it’s no surprise that three of these seats – Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia – are in serious play. See below for more details.
Third, this is a terrible time to be a Republican. As has been commented on extensively on this blog and elsewhere, any Republican from John McCain down the ticket to dogcatcher is fighting a headwind. Thus, it’s probably not surprising that of the 23 Republican seats up this year, fully 11 of them are in serious danger of flipping Red to Blue. By contrast there are no Democratic seats currently thought to be in danger (Louisiana comes closest and recent polls suggest that hope is fading fast).
A net gain of any nine seats gets the Dems to the magic 60 votes for cloture. A landslide of 10 or 11 pickups gives the Dems enough votes to tell Joe Lieberman where to go and what to do with himself when he gets there (a sentiment that is circulating mostly sub rosa among Dems at this point).
Which brings us to the Little Picture…a close look at the eleven Republican seats currently in contention.
The Little Picture: To maximize your election night enjoyment, I’ve ordered the races by poll closing times – from earliest to latest.
6:00 PM CST: Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia.
Georgia’s Senate race has been growing increasingly close and could be closer still. The most recent polls have incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss leading challenger Jim Martin within the margin of error. Close to 1.4 million people have already voted in Georgia and there is evidence of a huge turnout among black voters in those stats that could push this race even closer. If this race goes Democratic, it signals a bad night for the GOP.
Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is probably the safest of the GOP officeholders in play, but here too, the Red Team can’t take anything for granted. Polling from last week put McConnell up 47-43 over Democrat Bruce Lunsford but that’s within the margin of error. If this seat goes down, it’s the herald of an epic loss for the GOP in the Senate.
Virginia. No question in anyone’s mind that this open seat is going Democratic. In the battle of former governors, Democrat Mark Warner is way, way ahead of Republican Jim Gilmore. The Washington Post poll last weekend put it 61-31.
7:00 PM CST: Mississippi and New Hampshire.
In Mississippi, appointed incumbent Roger Wicker is squaring off against Ronnie Musgrave, a former governor. Mississippi last elected a Democrat to the Senate in an open election in…1947.
On the face of it, this looks like a long, long slog but some polls shows the race tightening to within the margin of error and the Dems have poured a ton of money into the race ($3 million according to the New York Times a couple of weeks ago). Here again, a high black turnout might make a big difference. There’s no early voting in Mississippi (other than absentee) so there’s only speculation at this point, but Obama has a strong GOTV operation there according to the Times. Watch this one to see how soon they call it as an indicator of how effective that program turns out to be.
New Hampshire. Incumbent John Sununu looks to be going down to defeat in his re-election bid against former Governor Jeanne Shaheen. A University of New Hampshire poll yesterday put Shaheen’s lead at 49-38.
7:30 PM CST: North Carolina.
Elizabeth Dole is North Carolina‘s incumbent Republican Senator and a couple of months ago was thought pretty much untouchable by opponent Kay Hagan. Consider Mrs. Dole touched as most polls now give Hagan a lead within the margin of error.
In what I’m sure you recognize as a pattern, black voter turnout is probably going to decide this race. Early voting in North Carolina is already 148 percent ahead of 2004’s total early vote and the stats say that those going to the polls are disproportionately black and Democratic.
8:00 PM CST: Colorado, Minnesota and New Mexico.
Colorado is another open seat that looks to be going Democratic. Most polls have given Democratic Congressman Mark Udall a double-digit lead over his opponent Bob Schaffer. The Republican Senate Campaign Committee last week pulled their advertising support in what is widely viewed as a concession to the inevitable.
I’ll leave it to our readers to pick ’em in the Minnesota contest. Incumbent Norm Coleman is in a tight race with Al Franken and both have poured millions into ads along with millions more from independent expenditure committees. Franken has an advantage in most recent polls (though not all), but my sense is that Norm is getting some traction with his recent ads and is helped by the Star-Tribune endorsement last weekend. This race is essential to the Dem’s chances to hit 60.
New Mexico is the third open seat likely to flip Red-to-Blue. In the battle of the Congressmen, Republican Steve Pearce is trailing Democrat Tom Udall by double-digits (15 points or more) in most polls.
10:00 PM CST: Oregon.
Oregon is leaning Democratic but is probably still too close to call at this point. Incumbent Republican Gordon Smith is trailing by 4 to 6 percent behind Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley in most polls (though a GOP-sponsored survey put Smith up by 4). If it’s a bad night for the GOP, Smith goes down.
Midnight CST: Alaska.
If there’s a reason to stay up late on election night, it might be to find out the results of the Alaska Senate race. This race was upended earlier this week by the conviction – on all counts – of incumbent Senator Ted Stevens for failing to report more than $250,000 in gifts.
Stevens, the longest serving Republican in the chamber, was in a statistical dead heat with his opponent Mark Begich before his conviction; it’s likely that this news – along with the calls from both sides of the aisle for Steven’s resignation – will tip this seat easily to the Dems.
The Analysis. It’s very easy for me to see the Democrats getting to 57-59 Senate seats on election night. Getting to 60, though, will take an extraordinary performance by the Democrats but not as far a reach as one might think. Spiking black turnout in Georgia and Mississippi – plus a squeaker win by Franken – could tip the balance.
For handy reference, here’s a Senate thermometer that gives you an at-a-glance way to assess a Senate result. Anything on the left side of the chart is a Democratic pick up but not an unexpected one. Anything on the right, however, is a sign that 60 seats may well be in reach.
As always when I research these posts, I find lots of interesting sites. One of the best is on Wikipedia and covers the waterfront nicely.
Next up, the House.